Monday, 31 October 2016

Brain vs. Mind

While we are on the topic of body, lets discuss some interesting stuff about the most interesting and mysterious organ in the body - the brain. As usual, I won't attempt to conclude too much and will leave the file open, since it is beyond my pay grade to talk on this fascinating subject. All I can do is, if you give me some statements about the brain, I can find out if they make sense based on my own experience and a bit of logical and critical thinking. I can also theorize about it but it may not be the whole truth. But I can surely dislodge some beliefs and take you to the stage of uncertainty - the "I don't know" stage, where all the real answers lie.

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Why is there a brain? Is it a necessary component for life? It does look like that life would be impossible without a brain. But we see many life forms around us that are doing just fine without a brain. In fact most of the life on earth is of brainless variety. The unicellulars, bacteria and such, the entire plant kingdom and even some animals (starfish and jellyfish for example), are brainless. So if you pay attention you will see that life forms with a brain are an exception, a special category. Nature hardly distinguishes her children in regard to brain.

It seems that the nervous system arose with a capacity for movement. The movement is actualized by special cells that contract using electric charge. This is the only action an animal is capable of in physical terms. Some cells took on specialized role of generating and conducting the electric charges. These became neurons and their network became a distributed system, making coordinated motion possible. Why use electricity? Because it is the fastest way to send signals and also happens to be a mechanism to trigger muscle cells. The same can be done via chemicals, and is actually being done to some extent for a few functions, but it is slow, obviously, not a big survival advantage. We still don’t see a brain yet.

Things started to become really interesting when some cells got the capability to generate electric pulses in response to external stimuli, such as surrounding chemicals or light and sounds. These evolved into sense organs. Initially the sensory neurons connected directly with the neural network and effected motion in response to the external stimuli. This is still seen in present life forms. In some animals the eyes are directly wired to muscles, for example. However, it is more useful if a set of neurons could mediate the motion based on inputs from other senses. For example, the sensing of food will cause a movement towards it, but if a predator is also sensed by another sense, then it is better to halt the movement. So some cells took on the role of an on/off switch. The control is enabled via the inhibitory and excitatory capabilities of neurons. Soon a bulb of such neurons appeared in evolutionary journey, which received pulses from senses and mediated controlled excitation of muscular movement. So we see that the primitive brain evolved as a control system.

What is the best position for a brain? This is again decided by the speed. If you place it too far from the senses, it can take some time for the pulses to reach it, which travel via millions of neurons. A few milliseconds of delay in wild can mean life or death. The signals also diminish and degrade with distance. So optimally the bulb of brain grew near the dominant sense organs. For most of the animals these are smell, sight and sound, which, not by coincidence, appear very near to each other. So it seems that the brain is just a part of sensory network, an aggregator of all of them [1].
Wouldn't that be a disadvantage from the point of view of muscles? Yes, probably, but muscles don't needs to send/receive a lot of data, a few pulses are enough. And the network formed a special thick backbone to interface with muscles, the spinal cord. I guess that solves this signal speed/degradation problem elegantly. So we see the brain optimally placed in head, where major sense data is generated, and not coincidently, that's where we find ourselves located.

The humble brain bulb got layers after layers of enhancements and add-ons, which added a lot of functionality to it [2]. So we got things like simulations of movement before doing actual movement (thoughts), learning (memory) and simulations of sensory data (imagination). With that the movements also got very refined and purposeful and assumed the commonly seen behavioural acts of organisms, including those of humans. Purposeful, intelligent and beautifully executed actions are a sign of nicely functioning, well developed brain.

Note that we do not find any reasons whatsoever for evolution of subjective stuff like qualia, emotions, perceptions, consciousness or the Self. So in this regard the theory of evolution fails to provide any explanations. The brain could surely work with light, its intensity and frequency etc., but why is there this quality of colour and brightness to it? Brain can process signals from damaged tissue, but why do we have that annoying quality of pain that comes bundled with it? Why there is this bystander called consciousness? So on and so forth. The materialist view fails here. Is it possible that the qualities are as fundamental as matter that makes up the brain? Or is it possible that somehow the subjective aspects appear with objective ones just as gravity appears with a mass? The two being inseparable with any separation being only an idea, an illusion?

The physical system of the brain is a closed system, there are no paths or special arrangements that lead to non-physical aspects of it. This poses a real problem - how are those non-physical qualities produced by the brain? The colours, sounds and pains can be "explained away" by some reasonable and some not so intelligent arguments, but the consciousness remains unexplained, like a stubborn elephant in the room, it refuses to disappear into the electric cobwebs of the brain.

The matter of the brain

These days we know that the matter that composes the brain is nothing special. It has no special spooky powers to produce a mind or consciousness magically. Its all just electrons, protons and neutrons - normal matter. So one comes back empty handed if one tries to find something unusual there. But we see a strange thing there, if we dig deeper. We see the solid matter disappear before our eyes and we are left with "spinning nothings", invisible vortices of energy, nothing else. Moreover, if there is no conscious observer, these nothings become absolutely nothing, they disappear into the fog of quantum uncertainty, just reduced to some probability that something can be there if looked for. An average reader would think that I’m making it up, but this is just standard quantum theory, a hundred year old and unchallenged.

So one must wonder - how can matter generate a mind or a consciousness when it does not exist? How can it do so when apparently it exists only in presence of a conscious observer? Of course, there are some arguments out there that try to twist QM to preserve the status quo of classical mechanics, but I find them childish. Anyhow I’m open to any other interpretation of QM if it can convincingly solve the mind-brain issue, so far I found nothing extraordinary.

States of the brain

A remarkable thing about the brain is that it cycles through states and these states have subjective counterparts. Most of the beliefs regarding the mind and brain relations arise out of observation of these states. We find that the brain activity is different during waking state when compared to a deep sleep state. In the deep sleep there is no mind, not anything like a waking state mind, so it is concluded that specific kind of brain activity is necessary for the mind to appear. Something similar is seen during anaesthesia, drug intoxication and death.

Can the experimenter see the absence of the mind? Obviously no, that is inferred from the verbal reports of the subject, who clearly denies the presence of any mental activities. There is some activity during dreaming but we will focus on deep sleep only. Its there that the mind disappears while the brain is still there happily oscillating with a slow rhythm. The subject also reports an absence of consciousness.

Well, it looks like we can close the case now. But there is a big problem here. The subject relies on his memory when asked about the presence or absence of the mind. The memory was not functioning while in the deep sleep. Can the subject recall anything at all about the mind or any experiences without a memory of them?

It depends on how you ask the question. If you ask - "Was there any mental activity while you were deeply asleep?", the subject would probably say no. If you ask - "Can you recall any mental activity while you were deeply asleep? ", the subject would probably say no again. But now he is denying a memory of the mental activity, he is reporting an absence of memory, not of mind. If you ask about the deep sleep itself, the subject will even deny that there was a deep sleep, he must be told by others that he was in a deep sleep. Since deep sleep was a past event, there is no other way to talk about its subjective aspect but to use memory, and unfortunately the memory itself shuts down during deep sleep. Maybe the mind was not there, but there is no certain way to know it. Specifically, maybe the mind was not there as it appears in waking state, the state of it during deep sleep is unknowable.

If you ask the Self, it will report no experience of deep sleep. The time of entering deep sleep and time of coming out of it is same for the Self. The mind must determine the physical time from external means, because there were no mental changes to gauge any time at all. The Self just stands there innocently as if nothing happened and the mind struggles to recall what happened. Others tell the subject that he was in a deep sleep. And others conclude whatever they conclude about the status of mind and consciousness. I guess its not a fair trial.

There are other more exotic states of mind/brain where more questions pop up instead of answers. We won't go there for now.


Before one can attempt an answer to the question of cause, it is worth exploring what is really meant by the word "cause". We enter the idea of causality here. That’s right, it is only a concept, a belief, an idea, and there is no real thing like causation out there [3]. Search for it and you will find layers and layers of ideas, all made up as an attempt to understand things. I almost wrote half of this article until I realized that nothing made sense and then questioned causality itself. I soon found that I was afflicted with some beliefs about causality, some study of it made it clear that one need not take causality very seriously. It is not meaningful for deeper analysis. Well, I was happy that I learnt something, but I had to delete my article, a masterpiece it was, but obviously, a senseless one.

Various philosophies define causality in different ways. Which one is valid? Well, none. It all depends on which one is meant by the questioner. For this discussion we will take the materialist definition, as the beliefs of brain as a cause of subjective phenomena is materialist. When a series of events happen, such that the preceding event is necessary for succeeding one and determines it completely, then we say that the later event was caused by earlier one. So cause and effect is a way of relating two experiences.

It works nicely in macro situations and even in human affairs. So when we say - the assassination of a leader caused a war, we mean that the event of assassination lead to a series of events resulting in the event of war. In the same way we can say that a virus caused a disease and the disease in turn caused death. So there is not only a correlation but also a determination. The cause determines the effect. There is also a temporal aspect to it. If everything happened at once, one would find it difficult to explain it using causality.

So far so good. But note that all the events in the chain of events leading to a war can be a cause, because if you change even one of the events, it won’t result in a war. So there are many causes, but one can arbitrarily fix the assassination as the main cause. One can trace backwards from assassination to events like the assassin buying a gun, or stealing money for it, or getting angry over some act of the leader, or even to some childhood event in his life which formed a belief that resulted in anger. So on and so forth. Aren't all these events also a cause? We find that now the causality is beginning to sound stupid. One can argue similarly in the case of a virus causing a death. Was it the victim using a public toilet? Or was it a carrier of that virus using the same toilet before him? And so on.

Lets take a finer example - the steam pressure causes the piston to move in an engine. Again, one can trace the causal chain backwards to the turning on of a valve, heating the water, burning the coal, mining it and what not, but its obvious that its ridiculous to do that in this case. Its a transfer of kinetic energy from one substance to another. The atoms in the piston cannot occupy same space as those in the steam and so get displaced towards a direction where more empty space is available. It is probabilistic and quantum mechanical, not deterministic. However, the macro event is deterministic, classical and causal. So we see that in this case, the causality is just a rough way of describing things when a thorough description is not needed. Anyhow, we have physical continuity here and also a neat temporal effect, so we do not need any magic to explain it all.

A heavy mass causes gravity. We are going towards more ambiguity now. What is the mechanism? Is it a transfer of something across the space? Or is it something probabilistic? In my opinion, it doesn’t make any sense to say that a mass is a cause of gravity. In the same way, a magnet is not a cause of magnetic field. The field of influence and the mass appear simultaneously, there is no temporal sequence, and there is no mechanism. Similarly it doesn’t make any sense to say that the gravity causes attraction between two masses. We see only motion, the objects move towards each other, the gravity is inferred, it is a mental construct, an idea, a way of talking about masses and their behaviour. Anyhow, we are in physical realm, even if we are inventing magical entities to describe something.

The brain activity causes the mind, qualia and consciousness. We are in a difficult situation here. There is no defined mechanism, there is no magical mediatory thing akin to gravity, or any other force or mechanism. It is not temporal, as we struggle to define time itself, when we cross over from physical electrical loops to subjective experiences. The time breaks down. It is not probabilistic either, the collective properties of neural excitation do not lead to a macro property. It certainly does not lead to a non-physical property. The physical chain of events of neural firings closes on itself. Neural firing produce more neural firings, there is no way to produce anything else.

What about the electromagnetic fields? A field is a mathematical concept not a real thing and certainly not a non-physical thing. People do go to extremes like invoking quantum phenomena to explain it away. But the QM strictly lies in the physical domain. There is nothing there to suggest a generation of consciousness or any other subjective stuff. Since QM is enigmatic for some, its like saying one mystery explains another mystery, magically.

A popular theory that attempts to explain brain-mind issue is Epiphenomenalism [4]. It basically means that the collective behaviour of neurons gives rise to an epiphenomenon of mind. So what is this epiphenomenon? Nothing but magic, a belief. Substituting words for actual reasons doesn’t do any good. I won't go into the details of it here, please search if you like to know more.

A Paradox 

It is already dissatisfying to call mind as an "emergent" property of the brain. One would be tempted to accept that as truth and carry on with life, stuff happens. But we see something strange, the brain appears as an object in our mind. There is no way to see a mind happening in a brain, but its pretty straightforward to experience a brain via mind, it appears as a percept.

So we encounter a funny situation where the brain is generating a mind which is in turn generating a brain and all its activity as seen on the instruments. The instruments themselves appear as objects in the mind. What is generating what here? How reliable is it to say that I see a brain and its patterns of pulses generating my mind in my mind itself?
One can say that others can see a brain and its activity, so it is more real and reliable. Sure it is, but only as far as the brain is concerned, others cannot see the mind it is allegedly generating. Others have no way to experience the mind of the subject they are experimenting on. As I said, others experience only pulses generating more pulses, the brain closes on itself. Others do find an interesting thing - there is some correlation between the signals and verbal reports of the subject.

Mind over matter

We do not see anything that can mediate an interaction in the direction of brain to mind, but we see something strange. Non-physical processes can cause physical movement, speech etc. If I ask you to raise your right hand, you go through the usual mental activity of making an intention, thinking, deciding which hand is the right one and then almost automatically executing the action in physical universe. This is obviously objective and can be seen by others.

How can something that is non-physical, or just emergent, or unreal, cause a real physical action? Where and how is this mediated? Which energy or force or particles are exchanged between mind and the brain to accomplish this? Of course there are no answers and do not hope for any, except denials such as the mind doesn’t exist. It is surely possible for a machine to make exactly similar action, and one can infer that it won't experience a mental version of the action, but then it will be a purely causal event, with no need for a mind and a consciousness as bystander. The analogy is valid only if you completely ignore the non-physical part.

We have seen that actions happen, and intentions also happen. The Self merely witnesses them, it does not cause them. The raising of hand is also a happening, but the action starts in non-physical domain and they then cross over to physical. This is my experience and perhaps of many of you. How to explain this seemingly magical yet simple phenomenon? There is only one logical way - it is possible only if the mind and the brain both are non-physical, so there is no need to imagine an interface between physical and non-physical.

Two sides of a coin 

What can be the reason for a close correlation between the signals and mentation? We should first summarize what cannot be an answer. We have already seen that the causation makes no sense here. There must be a clear path for some sort of energy to bridge the physical pulses and non-physical mentation, which does not exist physically and so causation is not possible. We have seen that there is no clear reason for evolutionary forces to give rise to subjective phenomena, the evolution is about optimization and adaptation, not about generation of subjective experiences. We have seen that it is very easy to see the brain as a percept, but impossible to see the mind as a physical entity. The mind is experienced directly and clearly, whereas the brain is experienced indirectly as a sense object and the brain activity is experienced only via instruments. So the assumed cause is furthest from direct experience and is most unreal, while the most direct experience is treated as most unreal if you go the materialist way. It is as if the believer needs to stand upside down in order to see his belief as truth. Well, we cannot blame the believer here, it is a complicated issue. So then what’s the answer?

I do not have an answer, but only another hypothesis, which makes most sense to me. A possibility is that of identity of brain and the mind. It is possible that some parts of the mind when seen objectively appear as brain. The brain, just like the body is non-physical. The physicality is an illusion created by the objectifying nature of the senses. Any perception that comes through senses is seen as physical and non-sensory perception (e.g. thoughts) are seen as non-physical. When the experience of a part of the Mind which is responsible for mentation, comes via the route of senses we see it as brain.

It seems that the brain is a small structure in the Mind that is responsible for interfacing with the body. The senses do not render everything, they present a view they are capable of presenting. The brain appears as a structure made up of neurons. Instruments, that are nothing but an extension of senses, can present a bit more, such as the electrical activity of the neurons. The electro-chemical activity of the brain, a happening, just processes in the Mind, is responsible for producing actions of the body.

It appears that the sense-perceived brain forms a continuum with the hidden structures of the Mind. The latter cannot be perceived via the senses, but can be easily perceived as mental objects of thoughts, memories and images etc. Some part of these processes appear as activity of the brain, especially the part that interfaces with the body. Why should the non-physical parts appear as physical electric pulses? The electrical pulses are non-physical too. Note that we are now taking the whole brain and body as mental structures. There is no such thing as physical, and this is my own experience (probably yours too). We will see in the next article why there is no physical world, no physical objects and so on. Once we dissolve the boundary between the physical brain and the non-physical mind, we solve the mind-brain dilemma.

What about consciousness? If the brain is nothing but the Mind then we need not worry about this question. The Mind happens in consciousness, i.e. the Self in non-dual terminology. The Self is nothing but Presence, it is all that is. So brain is a tiny, ephemeral event in the vastness of the Presence.

The belief of brain being physical obviously gives rise to problems, insurmountable problems. Getting rid of this belief instantly solves all problems [5]. The dichotomy of mind and brain is artificial, a belief not founded in direct experience. When you see the Mind as a whole, the confusion disappears. The brain processes are now just Mind processes, in part or in many cases, totally. The brain is just a mental structure, an objectification of essentially continuous structures of the Mind, which range from purely subjective to inert matter. We will descend further down and will take a look at the material world in next few articles.


[1] And ancient wise classified the brain as just that, a master sense organ (Gita 15.7).

[2] It is a characteristic of evolutionary systems that the old is never thrown away. We see all those primitive structures still functioning for better or worse. Even the chemical means for sending signals is maintained, and in some cases, the chemicals modulate the brain activity, including the subjective aspects like mood. Its not all electricity there.



[5] One would be tempted to ask how does it solve all problems. What about the problem of qualia for example? I can write it up some other day perhaps; this article is already too long for a person of average attention span. If you sit down and ask the questions about it, while remaining brutally honest, you will find that either this stuff is unknowable, or easily explainable or the problems themselves are artificial problems that arise because of beliefs.

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